Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

US EPA’s EnviroAtlas project promises to give researchers, students new insights into the geography of ecosystem services

Posted 13 Aug 2013 / 0

At the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America, I first learned about a really interesting initiative of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The project –now dubbed EnviroAtlas — is dedicated to creating a free, interactive online tool for exploring the geography of ecosystem services. I had the opportunity to check out a beta version of the tool and I wanted to provide a preview of what I think that it will be able to do once it is released to the general public.

One interesting facet of the EnviroAtlas project is that it seems to be designed to serve as both a research and teaching tool. As I do not do a lot of primary research in the biogeographical realms, I will mostly focus here on the teaching potential of the tool, but based on what I have seen I can easily imagine it being a pretty potent research tool as well.

EnviroAtlas is built around several sources of information. Web-based content provides the user with a basic overview of ecosystem services, including a taxonomy of different service types. Each service type is summarized in an “ecowheel” that links the natural resources provided by ecosystems with human benefits and also shows what drivers of change threaten these services. There is also an EcoHealth Relationship Browser that allows the user to explore a networked concept map that links ecosystem services, the ecosystem functions that provide these services, and various metrics of human well-being. What is particularly valuable about this browser is that it provides links to the research establishing each relationship: there is a heavy emphasis on only portraying information that has been supported by scientific evidence. The final part of the EnviroAtlas, the interactive map, is probably the most valuable and definitely the coolest. The map allows the user to look at all or part of the United States and then overlay geospatial data over that map. The data available is almost dizzyingly broad: there are a myriad of different datasets representing ecosystem services as well as hydrology, biodiversity, economics, and sociological data. Multiple layers of data can be overlaid to create maps that can uncover correlations between disparate measures of ecological and sociological phenomena.

My course in Ecology is built around the concept of ecosystem services. My students learn from the outset how ecosystems can be economically and socially valued for the services and resources they provide, and as we progress through the semester students gain an understanding of the connection between how ecosystems work and the services ecosystems provide. Nonetheless, these services can be pretty abstract to students. I would like to design an activity using EnviroAtlas wherein students would be asked to discover an ecosystem service, describe its regional distribution, and explain its connection to human well-being. Students could use screenshots to share their maps with other students, showing which layers they assembled to tell the story of a particular ecosystem service and its connection to human well-being.

Teaching about different biomes can be a bit tedious, and I see ways that the EnviroAtlas could bring this subject to life for students. Students can discover the connection between precipitation and temperature patterns and biome types simply by focusing on the characteristics of know regions in the United States: we know much of New York is covered with temperate deciduous forests while Arizona is predominantly desert, and looking at each region’s climate data would explain why. Then, using the ecosystem service datasets, students could independently discover which biomes produce particular kinds of ecosystem services. This could also lead to a discussion of which biomes are most threatened with biodiversity loss. By putting all this data in students’ hands, EnviroAtlas has the potential to turn teacher telling into student discovery.

The final way I see EnviroAtlas being of immediate value in my teaching has to do with the concept of environmental justice. Again, this is something that I now teach through various means but have not been able to convert into an inquiry-based activity. Because many of the metrics on EnviroAtlas’ interactive map are about human well-being (both in terms of health and to a lesser extent economy), students can explore disparities in the environmental quality of life experienced by different populations in the United States.

Based on the version of EnviroAtlas that I reviewed, I am optimistic that this tool will be released soon. It has a lot of kinks that need to be worked out, but I think that the review process will help polish up what is a pretty amazing raw product. The EnviroAtlas is very ambitious in its scope, and I hope that this ambition does not cause the project to become too mired down in fine-tuning: I would rather see a less-than-perfect version go out soon than wait another year for it to be perfected.

Although EnviroAtlas is not publicly available, you can sign up to review it here.

A Major Post, Biodiversity Loss, Biomes, Bogs & Wetlands, Climate Change, Computer Science, Conservation Biology, Deserts, Ecology, Ecology Education, Ecosystem Services, Educational Software and Apps, Environmental Justice, Freshwater Ecosystems, Geography, Grasslands, Habitat Destruction, Information Design, Invasive Species, Pollution, Ponds & Lakes, Population Pressure, Public Policy, Resource Consumption, Rivers & Streams, Sociology, Sustainability, Teaching, Teaching Tools, Temperate Forest, Temperate Rainforest, Terrestrial, Tropical Forest, Water Supply, Web

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